A Woman for All Seasons: An Interview with Françoise Sullivan

In 1948 Françoise Sullivan, who was 23 years old, set out with Jean-Paul Riopelle and Maurice Perron to perform and document a dance in the snowcovered landscape around Mont-St-Hilaire, Quebec. It was a unique artistic event, a dance that duplicated in body movement what Sullivan understood as the principles of gestural movement that were central to psychic automatism. Called Danse dans la niege (Dance in the Snow), it stands today as one of the singularly most important pieces of performance in the history of Canadian art. We know it from the remarkable photographs Perron took (the film footage shot by Riopelle has been lost). The Winter segment was the second of four improvisations the young choreographer had planned to do (she had already performed Summer). Significantly, Sullivan did complete her seasonal cycle in 2007 when her reworked choreography for all four seasons was filmed by Mario Côté and released as Les Saisons Sullivan.

Françoise Sullivan’s recollection of Danse dans la neige is as clear as the air on the 28th day of February, almost six decades ago, when she performed it. She remembers that “the entire countryside seemed to whisper” and her gestures became evocative of what she understood as a “Northern melancholy. I was just dancing with my feeling of the landscape. I let the rhythms flow. I perceived the space of day—cut it and shaped it.” Her description of space is as much painterly and sculptural as it is kinetic, a slippage that should surprise no one. Sullivan’s lengthy and accomplished life in art has been an intersecting web of movement from one art form to another. She has distinguished herself as a dancer, choreographer, sculptor, performance and conceptual artist and, above all, as a painter.

In her practice she has searched for and affirmed the authenticity of art making in whatever art form she was engaged, and in whatever set of circumstances she found herself. After her marriage to the painter Paterson Ewen, and the birth of four sons, she found it impossible to commit to the daily regime demanded by dance, or to a satisfying studio practice. But within two years she began to make assembled steel sculpture. Sullivan has demonstrated a passionate and indefatigable will to make art throughout her career.

What is noteworthy is how early she recognized and acted on that passion. By the age of eight, she was teaching her friends to dance on the street in Montreal; a year later she decided she was going to become a painter. Her precosity is now the stuff of legend; the meeting with Paul-Émile Borduas when she was 17 was an encounter that would lead to her involvement in the Refus Global, the manifesto that would catalyze Quebec society and irrevocably change the lives of all 16 of the signatories. Included in the document (it was launched at the Librairie Tranquille on August 9, 1948) was Sullivan’s “La danse et l’espoir (Dance and Hope),” a text now regarded as the articulate beginnings of modern dance in the province. It is a fascinating declaration in many ways, not the least of which is that in searching “for a state of receptivity similar to that of the medium,” it seamlessly links visual art and dance. “In my dance I was trying to do the equivalent to what I was doing in painting,” she says in the following interview. When she was studying dance in New York at the Franziska Boas School, she would create dances in the same way she would create an Automatiste painting. “Everything referred to painting,” she recalls. “My dance thoughts were painting thoughts.”

The focus of her practice today remains painting, what she refers to as her “essential preoccupation.” She says with conviction and without apology that “painting inhabits me. It always has.” Because of the significant role she has played in Quebeçois and Canadian art, it is easy to imagine that she could rest on her multilayered achievement. But in 2002 she began a series of paintings that responded to the deaths of a number of people close to her. The “Homage Series” (the name came after the work) is among the best painting she has ever done—large, richly worked monochromes that embody the spirit of the painters she is remembering: Jean-Paul Riopelle, Yves Gaucher, Charles Gagnon and, especially, Paterson Ewen. The diptych that carries his name is a majestic and profoundly moving testament both to a beloved painter and to the act of painting itself. “Art is something I have to do all the time,” she says. “For me, art is like breathing.” On the evidence of the paintings she is making at this point in her life, Françoise Sullivan is continuing to take deep, very deep, breaths.

The following interview was conducted by phone from Montreal on March 28, 2008.

Danse dans la neige. Photographs: Maurice Perron, 1948, prints 2000. Gelatin silver prints, 39 x 39 cm ea. Maurice Perron Fund, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. Courtesy: Françoise Sullivan and The Canadian Art Database Project, York University, Toronto.

Danse dans la neige. Photographs: Maurice Perron, 1948, prints 2000. Gelatin silver prints, 39 x 39 cm ea. Maurice Perron Fund, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. Courtesy: Françoise Sullivan and The Canadian Art Database Project, York University, Toronto.

BORDER CROSSINGS: Was yours the sort of household where you would have been encouraged to be interested in the arts?

FRANÇOISE SULLIVAN: My brothers were interested in sports, and I was much younger than they were. My father loved poetry and what he loved best was giving a speech in which he would recite some poetry. He was good at it. Sometimes he wrote his own poetry, and he wrote a poem for me when I was a little girl and it was very like Victor Hugo. He had charisma and I adored him. My neighbour, whose little girl I played with from my earliest time, was a violin teacher who made his own violins as well and is still known as a special teacher. I think he might have come from Winnipeg. His name was Camille Couture. I heard a lot about art and great musicians when I went to their house. So I grew up with people talking about art; it wasn’t foreign to me.

BC: But you seemed very precocious. Didn’t you start dance lessons very early on?

FS: That was my mother’s idea. I was eight years old and it wasn’t so common in those days. I took ballet lessons and there were always performances at the end of the year in which I participated. I also took theatre lessons from Camille Bernard, who had the Théâtre de petit. I used to teach my friends to dance on the street. I was making little plays. It was a game. I guess I felt art inside me and I felt it right away. I decided I would be a painter when I was nine.

BC: Even though dance was your love, you actually made the determination inside your own head to be a painter?

FS: Yes. But then later I left painting for a while to go to New York. I felt I had nothing more to learn here in the direction of dance. I went in 1944 and spent two years there.

BC: Did you specifically go to work with Franziska Boas?

FS: I didn’t know about her. First I went to ballet school because that was all I knew and then I found the New Dance Group where Mary Anthony was teaching. I learned about Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Doris Humphrey, and I took a little bit from them. Gradually, I learned about Franziska Boas because I wanted to form my own language. Everybody who danced with Martha Graham looked like her; she was so strong and so exquisite. My memory of her was that she was very nearly incandescent. She was an extraordinary presence. But I wanted to be my own presence, to find my own language, and Boas had that. It was more basic and it was very philosophical. She was an activist; I walked in the May Day Parade in those days. I also had some difficulty getting out of ballet movements, so I took some classes with Pearl Primus, who was doing African dance, and others with La Meri, who was doing Indian dance. There was a lot of improvisation at the Boas studio and she had the biggest collection of musical instruments from all over the world. We did have sessions where we would improvise on those.

BC: So it was the right atmosphere for you?

FS: Yes, it followed from Les Automatistes. I don’t think they were called that yet. That came in 1946. But I felt it followed our way of thinking very closely, an openness and a hope for everyone to be free to express themselves.

BC: Was it utopic in its social attitude and aesthetic philosophy?

FS: Utopia? I don’t know because I think we did change something.

BC: Were you also setting dances for yourself at this time, doing your own choreography?

FS: Definitely. Dance had always been so much a part of my life, going to classes every day after school, that it was equally as strong as painting. But when I was in New York, I couldn’t do any painting. When you do six to nine hours of dance a day, you don’t really have time for painting. But on Sundays I went to the Museum of Modern Art and there was also a Cineclub where we could see good old movies.

BC: Let’s go back a bit. Can you remember your introduction to Paul-Émile Borduas?

FS: I was 17. First of all, I have to say that we were already thinking in a certain way in those days. I knew Pierre Gauvreau much earlier, when I was about 11, and he was really very much a thinker. He and Bruno Cormier, a student at the Jesuit School who became a doctor and a very important psychiatrist who lectured all around the world, were friends. At that time Bruno was more of a poet and I have a recollection of them sitting on the street curb reading Rimbaud. He also loved Baudelaire and, in fact, when he was dying, he asked his wife to read him some Baudelaire.

Walk from the Musée d’art contemporain to the Musée des beaux-arts and back, 1970, gelatin silver prints, 26.6 x 26.6 cm ea. Collection: Musée des beauxarts, Montreal. Courtesy: Françoise Sullivan, Montreal.

Walk from the Musée d’art contemporain to the Musée des beaux-arts and back, 1970, gelatin silver prints, 26.6 x 26.6 cm ea. Collection: Musée des beauxarts, Montreal. Courtesy: Françoise Sullivan, Montreal.

BC: So are you saying that as an 11-year-old you were involved with intellectuals?

FS: Well, in a childlike way. Of course, I used to go to the Ballets Russes and I knew about Diaghilev and all that world. In our teens it was sport to go to every performance but to enter clandestinely. What was fun was to see it from different angles, from one side, from the other, from the back, the balcony, from everywhere. We got to know everything about it. So you see we were already discussing many things. We were at l’École des beaux-arts and we became friends gradually at the coffee break with a few people who started to think like us. There was Louise Renaud, the sister of Thérèse and Jeanne. Thérèse is a poet and she married Fernand Leduc. He was older and was already a Brother in the order but he came out that year.

BC: That’s a good thing. As a signatory of the Refus Global, he wouldn’t want to play that central a role in the priestridden society attacked in the document.

FS: That’s right. So we became friends and we would discuss at the break that the teaching was very academic and we were seeking something much more free. We used to go to the library, which was very small, but there was an intelligent man there, Jules Bazin, who had ordered books on Gauguin, Monet, Manet and artists of that generation. We were looking at those books and we started painting at home. Pierre Gauvreau had been asked to participate in an exhibition at the Collège Sainte-Marie, where he had been thrown out (his brother was still there), and he exhibited some of those little still lifes. Borduas, who was then just a teacher, was asked to give a prize and he wanted to give it to Pierre but for some reason the priest didn’t want to give it to him. As it turned out, it didn’t matter because Borduas contacted Pierre. He was so excited to see one young painter who was really a painter and he invited him to his studio. That’s when Pierre said, I have a few friends who would so much like to meet you as well and could they come along? Borduas said yes, and so on a November evening we walked into a room on the second storey of a house Borduas had rented near his own home. The rather small room was all painted white, with no furniture other than a single chair, one easel and some paintings facing the wall. We sat on the floor around Borduas and he showed us one painting at a time, and those were just about his first modern paintings. Then we talked about everything until four in the morning and when we came out of there our hearts were turning all over. We thought it was so wonderful and we wanted to meet him again. He invited us on Tuesday two weeks later. There was another group of young people from the Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf that time, a group that followed a priest called Francois Hertel, who was an intellectual. Pierre Trudeau was part of that group. We went there and Borduas was doing a critique of some of the drawings those young men were doing and it was very interesting. Through this kind of critique, I learned how to really look at a work of art and gradually was able to differentiate a good one from a bad one. It took time for me to be able to evaluate a work of art but I think I can do it now.

Vert no.1, 2007, oil on canvas, 183 x 122 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Simon Blais, Montreal.

La tache bleue, 2007, oil on canvas, 101.5 x 76 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Simon Blais, Montreal.

BC: Did you know at the time that what you were involved in was going to transform Quebec society?

FS: We were working on it. We felt like apostles. We knew we were doing something exciting and we felt like we were in the avant-garde but we were never recognized.

BC: How did it come to the point where you decided that the group needed a manifesto?

FS: That came through discussions. We used to meet often but always in a casual way at someone’s studio, like Jean-Paul Mousseau’s or Fernand Leduc’s. It would be open house in the evening and we could go there anytime. Louise Renaud, who was in New York even before I went, would come and give us books that were not available in Montreal. When Louise left for New York, we thought she was so daring. She had to get a job, she was 19, and she saw a notice in the paper advertising for a nanny for Pierre Matisse. You had to be French. She had never been to France but she said she was French and she got the job. She was there for a year and she met everyone around the gallery, Breton and Duchamp and their circle, and because she was very intelligent and discreet, she was accepted. She would bring us the books and magazines they published.

BC: You were young but obviously learning at a galloping pace. To be involved with this kind of intellectual movement at such a young age—you were only 18—seems rather extraordinary.

FS: Well, you know revolutions are always done by young people. This is when you have the enthusiasm, the energy and the folly.

BC: Did there come a point with Borduas’s leadership where you sat down and said, we have to formalize this, to compose what was essentially a manifesto?

FS: Yes. The writing of the Refus Global was collaborative, but Borduas wrote his own text. After all, he was older and more experienced than we were. He was really a thinker, an amazing person when you consider that he left school at 15. He educated himself. At that age he started helping Ozias Leduc in painting church frescoes. But he was extremely charismatic in a profound way. I remember my heart would be beating so hard when I was listening to him.

BC: Was he so attractive that you were acolytes?

FS: Certainly at the beginning. There was something very charismatic about him.

BC: Your essay on dance, called “La danse et l’espoir (Dance and Hope),” that was included in the document is now recognized as a call for a modern spirit in Quebec dance. You were only 23 when you wrote it.

FS: I find it so badly written I’m ashamed of it. But I was trying to get across some things without any ease of writing. I don’t know what Borduas’s interest was in what I had written. That text came about because Pierre Gauvreau’s mother held a literary salon and she asked me to do something on dance. Then a bit later, the group decided that they would like to include it in the document—I wasn’t there when they decided that. They also included Claude Gauvreau’s play and photographs of my dancing.

BC: So was the group already moving towards a kind of interdisciplinarity?

FS: Painting was the essential preoccupation. In my dance I was trying to do the equivalent to what I was doing in painting. At Franziska Boas I had learned how to improvise. I would create my dances in the same way that I would do a painting in Les Automatistes way. I would do a movement and then I would set it so that I could repeat it. I would make space notations mainly. Some of them have been published. The first choreography that I did at Franziska Boas came from a dream; it was a duality which I initially danced with Jeanne Renaud. It has been performed since by Montreal dancers.

BC: When you were doing choreography, like Dedale (Daedalus), were you aware that as a dancer and choreographer you were setting new standards and boundaries for what dance could be? How conscious were you of the radical nature of what you were doing?

FS: I think I was. I felt they were short choreographies but I felt that in time I would get to do larger ones.

Un tableau blanc, 2007, oil on canvas, 61 x 46 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Simon Blais, Montreal.

BC: How stultifying was the society you were reacting against at the time?

FS: I think each member had a different family experience. I think mine was very gentle, so it might have been more difficult for me to sign the manifesto than for others. I could see that the society was repressed but it was not my experience.

BC: Almost half the signatories of the Refus Global were women, and that in a deeply patriarchal society. Did it strike you as unique at the time that 7 of the 16 were women?

FS: I felt these women were like me. We all came to these ideas and with our own form of expression—one was an actress, one was a poet, two others were dancers, another was a designer, there were painters. We felt we were equal and we were not feminists; we were just equal. I think the young men recognized the equality of the women in the group but at first Borduas was hesitant about women signing it. In fact, he didn’t let Jeanne Renaud sign it because he thought she was too young. She was four years younger than I was.

BC: Were there other models for what Borduas and the rest of you were doing? There were Breton’s Surrealist Manifestos.

FS: I guess there were. Just the idea that Breton had made manifestos was a model, except that he was not close to us. There was a break. He really wanted us to adhere to his thought and we felt he was literary and we were painterly. And I was personally involved in dance movement. There was a little bit of correspondence and Fernand Leduc was involved with that. Also, I was a bit discouraged with that connection. When I was studying in New York, I got some work from all my friends and brought these paintings to Pierre Matisse, hoping that he would want to exhibit them, and he wasn’t interested. I even had Riopelle, which he later took on his own.

BC: The Refus Global says that the confidence of the culture “was destroyed by memories of European masterpieces,” and it underlined a degree of disdain for the local and the national. How did you reconcile that part of the manifesto with the favourable look some of you took towards Surrealism and your admiration for European painters?

FS: I think we were aware of everything that we could possibly be aware of at the time in modern art. We didn’t know too much about Kandinsky. There were some artists whom we didn’t know very much about but everything that was published we were more or less aware of. Of course, we learned from the Europeans but we were feeling that we were doing something original in its own right. In Canada it was very difficult to be recognized for what we were. There was always a feeling that we were never good enough. I think we’re leaving that feeling now; I think we really feel that we are asserting ourselves and that we’re as good as any other artists who have put in the same effort and passion as we have.

BC: What was the effect of the release of the Refus Global? Borduas was fired from his teaching position and left for New York, and subsequently Paris. Riopelle left; Marcelle Ferron followed Borduas. Was there a dramatic effect on the personal lives of the signatories of the document?

FS: There was. Claude Gauvreau kept things going by writing to newspapers and to editors. But it became more difficult because we no longer had sustenance from each other. Still, things went on. It’s very strange, but there were seven magic years from 1941 to 1948 when it really existed, when it was getting stronger, and then it exploded.

BC: Was there any effect on you because you signed the document?

FS: Not too much, but my father was furious. My mother calmed him and their affection for me prevailed and I never heard about it again. At the time my father had retired from his work in the civil service in Ottawa. He was part of the Commission Scolaire Catholique de Montreal and one day the director came to him with the Refus Global and asked, “Is this your daughter?” So he came home with it under his arm and he wasn’t happy. I was still living at home. It was difficult for me because it was a bit like a treason to do that. My family was Catholic but liberal. We weren’t the type of family who would say prayers at night, kneeling in the living room. There was nothing like that in my house. But it felt like a treason to him. I didn’t want to hurt him but at the same time I had to do it.

BC: Why did you believe so passionately that it was necessary?

FS: Because I had built up with my friends this whole way of thinking that was so much a part of me that there was no question. It was part of me; I had to do it.

BC: It would have been an act of self-treason for you not to be involved.

FS: Yes. That’s right.

BC: One of the things you are famous for is the Danse dans la neige (Hiver) (Dance in the Snow [Winter]). Where did the idea come from?

FS: The reason I did it was because we had a 16 mm camera. Also, being young, you think you can do everything. That’s why I thought I could do dance and painting. It started in the summer of 1947. I had gone with my parents to Les Escoumins on the north shore of the St. Lawrence beyond the Saguenay River. My father liked to go fishing there and we were there for a week. There was a jetty that went to the sea with big pink boulders where I liked to spend my time. One day, after I had figured out something to do, I asked my mother to hold the camera and I would dance. I would place her somewhere else and then dance some more. I made this little film. Then I thought that I would like to do all the seasons. I never did the Fall. But one night just two weeks after my February lecture, I was talking with my friends about how I would like to dance in the snow. Riopelle, who had come back from France for the birth of his daughter, said he was living near St. Hilaire and to “Come tomorrow.” That’s how spontaneous he was. So I went the next day and Maurice Perron happened to be there and he had a camera. I put the cine-camera in Riopelle’s hands and the following day we went into the countryside. I would choose the landscape and then tell Riopelle where to stand and then Maurice would stand next to him. Unfortunately, about 10 years later, the films were lost, so the only documentation of the event is his photographs.

BC: It’s like Hans Namuth doing Jackson Pollock. The documentation is the thing we have.

FS: Yes. It was very much like Pollock’s documentation and done at the same time.

BC: Did it seem a radical thing to do at the time?

FS: I thought I was doing a piece equivalent to a painting. So I was doing a work of art. Now I think of Richard Long.

Tondo, 1980, acrylic on canvas and cord, 10’ diameter. Courtesy: Françoise Sullivan, Montreal.

BC: Did you have a category for it? Other than the two men documenting it, there was no audience. It was a performance you did for yourself and for a sense of documentation. It wasn’t traditional dance.

FS: It was an improvisation and I wanted to make a film. I don’t know if you’ve seen the snow here, but it’s so hard and we have so much of it. It was just like that when we filmed Danse dans la neige. In that picture of me leaping downhill, I was just dancing with my feeling of the landscape.

BC: So landscape played an important part in that dance?

FS: Yes. In fact, Gilles Lapointe was in Oslo, where he was trying to find out if anything similar had been done in other northern countries and he couldn’t find anything. I did have a sense that I was doing something special. I just wasn’t quite sure what it was that I was doing.

BC: In “Dance and Hope” you say that old-fashioned dance is an expression of “decadence, petrification and death.” What was the nature of the new spirit that you were after in your choreography?

FS: The immediacy of the feeling. The movement also came out of the landscape I was in and my sense of harmony in it.

BC: You talk about the use of chance in choreography. Is that a notion you would also understand as a prerequisite for painting and sculpture?

FS: I think the two are important. Without ideas, you don’t get to something that is strong, but without the serendipity, there is nothing that is unexpected.

BC: Do you feel that you’ve been able to hold together your life in art, regardless of which of the art forms you’ve worked in?

FS: I had to leave dance when I had my family—I couldn’t manage it because to dance you have to train every day and I couldn’t. I had four sons within 10 years. But I really stopped only for two years and then I took up sculpture. I was doing abstract sculpture. But what happens is that dance has a way of coming back to me all the time. First it came through sculpture when Jeanne Renaud, who had a company then, asked me to do some metal stage sets for her. Then in 1976 Paul- André Fortier decided to invite older choreographers to revive some pieces of choreography. I had the use of any of the company dancers for five days, so on my performance day, we started the morning with a reading of my text from the Refus Global and in the afternoon I revived Dedale, and also I had created some structural improvisations with a group of dancers. By structural, I mean I gave them very definite directions, but they had to improvise within these directions. The next year I was invited to present Dedale in a young choreographers’ performance and the girl who did it was Ginette Boutin, who has the O Vertigo company. She was fabulous and it was a great success. Then Martine Epoque asked me to do some choreography for Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire, so it bounced like that. I often did things with the dancers at Vehicules. I was so lucky in that I had the best dancers. I did a big piece with 12 dancers in my studio called Et la nuit, à la nuit, a one-hour-long piece.

Paterson, from “Homage” series, 2003, diptych, acrylic on canvas, 348 x 287 cm ea. Collection of the artist. Courtesy: Françoise Sullivan, Montreal.

BC: You seem to have a genuine interest in myth and elementalism. Is that part of your sensibility?

FS: That was what that piece was about. About very ancient rituals and comparing them to modern rituals.

BC: Did you think of sculpture as a way of connecting to your early work in dance and painting?

FS: It was all natural because at l’École des beaux-arts we learned how to do modelling. So it’s all part of the same thing. I was thinking abstractly, just like the painters.

BC: Is it travel that allowed you to move into the performance and conceptual pieces that you did? How did those come about?

FS: In the mid-’60s, the attitude towards art changed very much. There had been Pop and Minimalism and kinetic work. But then something else was going on and I felt I had to see what it was. I got a small travel grant in 1970 (that was my first trip to Europe) and I went to Italy, Holland briefly, and Belgium, Paris, London. But where I felt so good was in Italy. I was under a good star. I arrived in Rome and went to a little hotel near the Spanish Steps. I left my bag and went walking, saw a small gallery and tried to go in, but the young man was just closing up. He could speak a bit of French and I told him I wanted to see what was going on in the arts and he said come and meet us at Piazza del Popolo at eight o’clock and there I met all the Italian artists. I went back two years later and I saw everything that was going on that year in Italy. They were the artists of the Arte Povera. It was interesting but also very troubling because my whole upbringing had been in a completely different direction. I believed in art and some of the things they were saying were hard to take.

Chute en rouge, 1966, welded and painted steel, 212.6 x 124 x 49 cm. Collection: Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay. Courtesy: Françoise Sullivan, Montreal.

BC: How did you make your sensibility and your aesthetic begin to fit these new conceptions that you were encountering in Europe?

FS: I did a few pieces there but it was difficult. I was unhappy and when I came back in 1973, I was very depressed. I had done the walk from one museum to the other before I left. It was mainly the theoreticians who upset me when they said that art was over, that painting was dead and that even museums were dead. At least until they could have their things bought by museums. It was like, “Get out of my way, so that I can get in.” But I thought, if museums were not good, then let’s see what’s outside museums. So I walked from my beloved Musée des beaux-arts, which I used to go to on my own when I was small, and took a photograph on every corner of the street without aesthetic decisions, just exactly as I arrived there. And I walked all the way to the Musée d’art contemporain and back. That’s what I did on a very hot summer day.

BC: That was a pretty radical piece for someone who was a more traditional essentialist.

FS: Yes, it was, and I still am.

BC: But were you able to reconcile your belief in, and commitment to, myth with contemporary art making?

FS: Reluctantly. Very reluctantly. The thing was that I would be very excited as I did things but then I felt empty until I found another thing to do. That’s not the way I had thought of art. Art for me is almost like a daily practice; it’s something that I have to do all the time. It’s like life; it’s like breathing. Painting is the same for me because it’s what I do now.

BC: Has painting supplanted dance as your most passionate form of self-expression?

FS: Yes, but it was always there. Everything referred to painting. My dance thoughts were painting thoughts. You might think I’m old-fashioned but for me painting has remained the major art.

BC: Were the Tondos your move back to painting after you had worked in a more conceptual area?

FS: Yes, I would think so. I was trying to create a link with what I was doing with the walls. That’s why there was sometimes a slit to remind the viewer of the window; in one of them there were stones on the ground.

BC: When you wall the window in and then dismantle it, you make a very powerful piece. Was that a commentary on the idea that things had been closed off and they had to be opened up again? Was there a psychology involved in that piece for you?

FS: Unconsciously, I think there might have been because I also thought of being faced with a wall sometimes in thinking that painting was dead. I refused to think that. I think it has possibilities of life and we can see that already. As I go along, my involvement with painting is growing. I was giving a critique on Wednesday night to my students and I asked them at the end who was going to continue painting and they all lifted their hands. I said, you know painting is not dead and it depends on you. So I hope they feel the responsibility.

BC: Let’s talk about the “Homage” series. Did it originate out of a series of loss because so many people who were close to you had died?

FS: I think so. It was also before my big exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and there was a lot of adrenalin going. Right now in my studio, I have the big diptych and Homage to Ulysse. They feel good.

BC: Are they in any sense portraits for you?

FS: They’re abstract paintings but I was thinking about my friends and the people I had lost all the time. They were inhabiting me. I had no title for these works and when they asked me for titles, I said, “Obviously, they are an homage to these people.” I don’t know if they had a subject. In the naming, Paterson got the biggest painting.

BC: Was he the most important painter to you, or just the most important man in your life?

FS: Obviously, he was the most important man in my life. And I have four sons who look and walk like him, so I am always reminded of him.

BC: How does a painting develop for you? Do you know where it’s going or does the accumulation of mark making carry you instinctively across the surface?

FS: Both. I have to have some kind of idea so it’s not just anything goes. It can’t be that. But the measure of the idea and the measure of what happens in the actual doing is different. Some paintings can happen in the first casting and others take a long time to work out. You have to go over and over them and that’s why sometimes things happen, or colours show through. I don’t think of my paintings as monochromes because for me a monochrome is something that is completely blank and my painting is not a statement against painting. I want them to be alive. Even though they might look like a monochrome, I feel that they’re alive. I feel that there’s life boiling in them.

BC: You say somewhere in your writings that “if man is in these canvases, it is with his mythic spirit.” Do you sense the paintings are invested with a human mythology?

FS: I don’t know if it’s human mythology or human sensibility but it’s about what we are as people and as humans. Animals don’t do art like we do, they do something else; a spider web or a nest is not a work of art in the human sense. It is a physical necessity. This is more of a spiritual necessity.

Split power grid, 1964. Photo: Denis Farley. Collection: E. Gosselin.

BC: Is the “Homage” series ongoing?

FS: This year the exhibition at Simon Blais in Montreal was more on the edge of the painting. In the “Homage” series, there is an edge but I thought I’d push that further to see what happens. That was the idea from which to work. Since the exhibition, and maybe because of the snow, I’ve been doing a lot of painting with white, which I never did much before.

BC: So you’re still doing a dance in the snow, but this time it’s on the surface of a painting?

FS: Yes. I didn’t like white but now I’m doing a lot with white and something else. It’s very much about the touch. I think my painting is about touch.

BC: You must feel a sense of accomplishment at what you’ve achieved in your remarkable career. Not just because of what you’ve done but because of what you’re doing now in the recent painting.

FS: Well, it’s had its up and down moments. I’m trying to do better in my painting. I want to do something that really does something for painting and I’m working hard at it.

BC: How do you think you’re doing?

FS: I don’t know. I have to struggle. I have to work more. I want it to be even better. ■